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travel, stories, and other flights of fancy

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MORE on Italy, this time in COLOUR!

VeniceIf a picture’s worth a thousand words, I probably should have cut straight to uploading these photos, and saved myself the effort of writing my recent long and overly descriptive post on Italy.

But judging by the images, you’d think I only went to Venice. That’s because Venice is such a photogenic city. (And given the poor representation of the rest of the country, I’m a lazy photographer)

To see the Italy photo page, click on the blue door →




Tuscany, 2011For many people (possibly most people), Italy is a dream destination. With picture perfect scenery and an abundance of art, fashion, passion and prosciutto – there’s no wondering why it’s the choice setting for so many glamorous films, romance novels, and once-in-a-lifetime holidays.

For those who are lucky enough to actually make it there and see the ‘real’ (or just plain touristic) Italy, the spectrum of reactions is always varied.

Italy was the first country I visited when I moved to Europe in 2011, and it didn’t fail to live up to my (very high) expectations. I actually burst into tears when I saw the Colosseum, such was my wonder and joy at the sudden realisation that I was actually there and living my dream, so to speak. I travelled around for over two weeks, and managed to see a number of cities plus some countryside too, you can read about my very enthusiastic first impressions here.

So when Mum proposed going to Italy this summer (it would be her first time), I absolutely jumped at the chance. Of all the countries I’d been to since I got to Europe, it’s where I’d most wanted to go back.

This time, however, my response was completely different. Of course I enjoyed the trip, but this was mostly because I was in good company, in holiday mode, and not working. The country itself left me feeling a bit underwhelmed, sometimes even disappointed.

There are a few reasons why this might be:

– No free tapas. Sigh. I always find this hard to deal with outside of Spain.
– I was reading Gomorrah, by Roberto Saviano. Whilst it’s great to match your holiday reading to your destination, I don’t recommend this book to anyone. Partly because it’s so depressing (everything in Italy, and the world, but especially Italy, is corrupt and fake and run by gangsters and ultimately doomed), and partly because it’s badly written and/or badly translated, and a struggle to read. I ended up giving up half way.
– Some parts of Italy seemed quite dirty. Ok, in comparison to Spain (where old ladies regularly mop the fronts of their houses), most places seem dirty. But I’ve been in third world countries where the filth bothered me less. Perhaps it’s because I saw the griminess as symbolic of complacency (the monuments are already there and tourists will come no matter what), a lack of pride (don’t they appreciate what they have?!), and a result of corruption (see Gomorrah above). Whatever the reason, it’s a shame.
– The restaurants. Last time I was travelling by myself and was generally happy to sit on park benches with 3 euro pizza slices and the tasty fresh produce I got from markets. This time Mum and I chose to eat at cafes, though still on a modest budget. As it turns out, we were really just paying for a place to sit down, with air conditioning and a toilet. The food itself was nothing spectacular, especially for a country that’s meant to be a gastronomic paradise… I love Italian cuisine in theory, but in practice, all the pizza and pasta got repetitive (literally), and the prosciutto, salami and olive oil seemed pretty flavourless. I guess the best Italian food must be found at home-cooked family dinners, or in the really expensive restaurants, or in countries other than Italy…
– Mosquitoes.
– The tourists. Yes, we were two of them. Bloody tourists.
– Being there a second time. There are many advantages to this, such as knowing how the train system works, or being able to orientate oneself. However, I don’t know the country (or the language) well enough to be totally at home in Italy, but nor could I experience the adrenaline thrill of being in a completely new and foreign environment. Curious.

The holiday itself was incredibly smooth. We had no transport hiccups, our accommodation was great, and the service was generally good (although the restaurants stop serving much earlier than in Spain, and the waiters made no bones about packing up tables and chairs around people who were still eating. One time they even turned the lights off on us, at 11pm in the centre of Venice. Mum told them very smoothly that if she couldn’t see the bill, she couldn’t pay it, for which they had no counter argument).

As for the highlights of the trip, well fortunately there were many! It was curious to re-visit cities such as Rome, Florence and Venice, and see them in a different way. Some monuments were no less incredible the second time round, others I barely stopped to look at. Here’s a mixed mix of the places I saw, and some of the things that stuck out.

The Roman Forum: How on earth I missed this last time I don’t know, especially as my ticket to the Colosseum would have got me straight in. The Forum is a collection of ruins in the city centre. The buildings were once temples, shrines, basilicas and government offices, constructed across centuries by various emperors, each trying to outdo his predecessors. I’m not massively into ruins, and to me The Forum looks like a messy shamble from the outside. But I was in the company of people who know and love that kind of history, and their enthusiasm was contagious. Wandering the incredible buildings and gardens was fascinating and very enjoyable, despite the sweltering heat.

duomo of florenceFLORENCE
The Duomo: My favourite building in Italy. This time I climbed the tower, which was much easier in comparison to the claustrophobic steps of Segovia’s Alcázar, due to several rest points and a lovely cool breeze. So don’t be discouraged by the climb, it’s well worth it to view the building from above and look across at the beautiful domed rooves.
Walnut bread, fresh figs and chianti: Florence’s central market is a great place to pick up picnic supplies (and the path up to the Rose Garden across the river is a great place to have a picnic). The highlight was definitely the walnut bread – it was sort of like a chewy, sweet and salty flat bread, made with wholegrain flour. We went back to the market bakery for seconds (a few times), but stupidly didn’t get the name of the bread, and weren’t able to find it anywhere else. If anyone knows anything about Italian breads, please get in touch with me!

The shroud of Turin: The cloth that supposedly wrapped Christ’s crucified body is one of the most controversial and most analysed artefacts in the world. It’s held in a shrouded (haha) container behind a lot of security in the Cattedrale di San Giovanni Battista, but you can study a (surprisingly interesting) full scale replica in the nearby Church of San Lorenzo, or in the Museo della Sindone, the Shroud museum.
Mole AntonellianaThe Mole: is more than just a striking piece of modern architecture, it also houses Turin’s ‘National’ film and cinema museum. For me the highlight was the glass elevator, which takes you up through the centre of the museum and out onto an observation deck, for spectacular views of the city.
Caffè Mulassano: This tiny art nouveau cafe is found on the Piazza Castello. Drinks are pricey but well worth it for the nibbles (which came in silver bowls with silver spoons) elaborate decor, and friendly waiters (who only speak Italian). I recommend the spinach quiche, and the olives were the best I’ve tried outside of Spain.
Caffè San Tomasso 10: is creatively named after its address. This was the original Lavazza family coffee shop, and the walls are decorated with stunning, sexy, coffee-themed photography from their various advertising campaigns.

Skip all that fashion rubbish, Milan’s Duomo is much more stylish. The Cathedral’s gothic stonework is best viewed from the upstairs galleries, where you can walk amongst the arches and view the statues and gargoyles up close.

Well, George Clooney wasn’t there to pick us up from the station in his private, Nespresso powered waterplane, but we had fun in Como nonetheless. I’ve no particular recommendations, other than that if you’re short on time, the funicular and the ferry are both great for taking in views of the scenery, at two very different angles. What else can I say? It’s just a very pretty part of the world. Apparently it looks like Switzerland, and lots of famous people live there.

Venice is tired, and made me tired. It’s hot, and crowded, and expensive, and I feel sorry for the buildings which are all slowly rotting and sinking under the weight of the tourist hordes with their cameras, gelatis, and tacky souvenirs. However, I did have a few pleasant surprises.
Vivaldi: Mum bought some spur-of-the-moment 25 euro tickets to a concert from one of those street vendors dressed in Renaissance get up. I was sceptical, thinking it might be a scam, or at best, the concert would be terrible. Venice has such a transient population that if the musicians were awful, no matter, tomorrow would bring a fresh, ignorant crowd and it would be a sell out as usual. How wrong I was. The music (The Four Seasons, plus some) was fantastic, and the musicians were fascinating. The performance was held in a small church just off St.Mark’s square, which reportedly had the same acoustics and dimensions as what Vivaldi originally composed his works for. The intimacy of the venue allowed us to study the musicians faces, and speculate on their possible relationships and the apparent musical and psychological battle that may or may not have been taking place between them. Definitely the most interesting concert I have ever been to.
Gondola ride: Many people say this is over-priced and overrated. At 80 euros for half an hour, I’ll admit it’s bordering on daylight robbery, but I really think it’s worth it. It’s a beautiful way to enjoy the city. After scurrying around crowded walkways all day, it was so relaxing to kick back in a gondola and glide for a bit. The best bit was enjoying the music wafting by from other gondolas which had payed extra for the ‘canapé and serenade’ package.
Delivery men: The delivery men of Venice have it tough. The logistics of the island are a nightmare; narrow streets, heaps of steps, and lots of loading/unloading big boxes from little boats. It’s hot and they work hard, mostly with their shirts off. If tanned and muscled torsos interest you, I recommend an early morning stroll in Venice, before the shops open.

LUCCA is a small city in Tuscany that’s famous for its medieval walls, pretty shops, and general pleasant-ness.
Aperol Spritzer: Aperol, Prosecco, and soda, served with a green olive on a toothpick, and with plain potato chips. Lucca’s central plaza is  round, and filled with nice cafes, parked bikes, and happy families. It’s the perfect place to enjoy an Aperol Spritzer and listen to some pretty good buskers.
Bike ride along the top of the walls: The city takes less than an hour to circumnavigate and it’s flat the whole way, which makes it an easily doable ‘exercise’ – even if you’ve had a few spritzers the night before. The views are gorgeous and the bikes are only 3 euros to hire.

Amalfi Coast

AMALFI was apparently the ‘highlight’ of my last trip to Italy. This time, it was the biggest disappointment. I remember the Amalfi coast as being spectacularly beautiful and dramatic, but now it just seemed crowded, cheap (classless), and dirty. Fortunately there were two saving graces:
Santa Croce beach and bar: is a free 5 min boat trip from Amalfi. Go to the left-hand jetty (when facing the beach) and look for the little boat with Santa Croce written on the side; it comes and goes all day. The captain is a big guy with long hair and a belly, I think his name was Antonio. This’ll take you to a small private beach, where it costs 15 euro for two banana lounges and a beach umbrella. The beach is much nicer (and the water much cleaner) than the big ones, and there’s a nice little restaurant that’s pretty inexpensive and has good seafood and pasta.
Il porticciolo di Amalfi: This was our ‘splurge’ accommodation. It’s pension which is a little removed from the town, up on the hillside, with a beautiful terrace that has spectacular views (especially at night). The breakfast is fantastic and the owners were lovely (they gave us the recommendation for Santa Croce). They also let us use the kitchen, and in the end we took all our meals on the terrace (so the ‘splurge’ really paid for itself). On the last evening we were lucky enough to witness a lightning storm out at sea, whilst enjoying spritzers and cheeses in the balmy night on our side of the bay.

ASSISI took me completely by surprise, and was without a doubt the highlight of this holiday. In fact, it was so beautiful, that I’m going to write a separate post about it.

So, that was Italy. I’ve definitely sated the lingering desire I’d had to revisit the country, as well as any buffalo mozzarella cravings I’m likely to have over the next few years. In a way, I’m glad that dream is over.

I’ll upload a photo gallery in the next post, and link them to the travel photos tab in the sidebar.


Belgium – pretty facades, responsible drivers, curious collections, and overwhelming selections.

Confession: I’m possibly the first traveller in history to go to Belgium and not eat waffles.

It wasn’t intentional, I swear. I like waffles and I kept meaning to try them, but ended up getting distracted by impossibly long beer menus and people saying funny words like ‘doodlesac’.

Belgium packs a lot in for a small country. And being there during the festive season definitely intensifies the experience.  I was there for about 5 days over Christmas, staying with my friend Sofie (who lives in Antwerp), and her family (who live in Elewjwit, a small village near Mechelen, near Antwerp, ie in the middle-ish up the top of Belgium, where the people speak Dutch).  It’s a very pretty part of the world.

Aside from being with a different family, in a different country, Christmas was surprisingly similar, with a plethora of food, booze, presents, games, and laughs. Even though I would have loved to have been back in Oz (this year, I promise!), being adopted by this merry Dutch family was definitely the next best thing. I feel so incredibly grateful for their generosity, in putting me up, showing me round, spoiling me rotten, and what’s more, doing all of it in English.

Of course it all feels like so long ago now. But here’re a few things I can remember about Belgium:

The cities have bronze statues of rather unusual ‘mascots’
Brussels – Mannekin Pis (little boy pissing into a fountain), Jeanneke Pis (little girl pissing into a fountain), and Zinneke Pis (little dog pissing on a post).
Mecchelen – Opsinjoorke, a fictitious young rascal whose statue depicts him being tossed in a blanket as punishment for his drunkenness and womanising.
Antwerp – Hero throwing the severed hand of a giant.
Ghent – Old fat man wearing a very distasteful dress and a noose around his neck
Bruges – I didn’t go there. Whoops.

Belgium is full of “Beguinages”. What the hell is a beguinage? At first Sofie got a bit exasperated, because I had no idea what she was trying to show/tell me. But as it turns out, her translation was perfect, and I’m just an ignorant Aussie who’d never heard of a beguinage before (though apparently neither has Microsoft Word). Well, in case you too are wondering, it turns out that a ‘beguinage’ is an all-women’s refuge, built for the widows of crusaders in the Middle Ages. These housing collectives were a liberal, well organised, and practical alternative for women who or couldn’t (or didn’t want to) enter into nunneries. These days, they make for quaint little architectural showpieces, with pretty green courtyards.

Beer and chocolate. I did my best. But I doubt I even managed to try 0.00001% of what was on offer.

Food: Aside from beer, chocolate and waffles, most other typically Belgian food seemed to consist of cheese, deep fried potato thingies, deep fried meat thingies, and lashings of creamy calorific sauces. I wonder how these people lived past 50? In the past, that is. Because given the current availability of ethnic restaurants and organic hipster cafes, and the notable absence of overweight people, I guess that modern Belgians enjoy a healthy and varied diet, and don’t live solely on their own cuisine. Christmas dinner(s) with the family was representative of this, being a thoroughly international affair, thanks to Sofie’s Dad’s recent obsession for Thai cooking and her Mum’s love of Spanish food.

My favourite city: Ghent. Like most Belgian cities, it was full of beautiful facades, tree lined canals, and artsy cafes. But compared to say, Brusssels, it had fewer tourists, a cosier feel (despite the persistent rain), and was much more navigable. It’s also said to have a pretty awesome music festival in summer. Food for thought.

Brussels, by the way, has one of the most unfriendly and counter-intuitive transport systems I have ever come across.

Dutch: If I was immortal and a lot more intelligent, I would happily dedicate a few years of my life to studying this fun and colourful language. As it is, I’ve come away from Belgian with a rather eclectic (and probably useless) base*.
Smikkelen = the act of eating something you really enjoy or relish the flavour of
Knabbelen = to nibble, feast on tapas/hors d’oeuvres/antipasto
Winkel = shop (in which case, does fairywinkle = fairyshop?)
Doodelsak (doodlesac) = Bagpipe. No idea how this came up in conversation. Just imagine me trying to explain to my hosts why I thought the word was so funny.
Bob = Designated driver (an acronym for something. All drivers who pass breath tests are given “Bob” key rings by the police)
Ik heb myn klopke = I’m stonkered. ie, I’ve eaten/drunk/walked/talked/partied too much, now I cannot move, but it was worth it.
Een engeltje dat op mijn tong pist = it’s like an angel is peeing on my tongue (to be said when drinking very nice champagne)
Ijsblokje = iceblock. Sounds very similar to English when spoken aloud. Dutch is like, so easy. We should all be learning it.
* possibly incorrect spellings!

Language: Most (if not all) young Belgians speak fluent English, with a barely notable accent, even if they’ve never travelled to an English speaking country. This says a lot for their education system. In addition to Dutch and French, a dominion of English would put a pretty large chunk of the population in the trilingual category. These people are clearly superhuman. No wonder they can eat so much chocolate and not get fat.

The weather: You should never say never. But I could never live in Belgium.

Click on the gallery below to check out some of the photos I managed to take, despite the ever pouring rain.

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